Our Capacity for Self Government: Fourth of July Reflections

December 24, 2020


American children are not born understanding the principles of their country, and most American college students—if reports can be believed—are still largely unfamiliar with them when they graduate. New immigrants are probably a little vague on the subject. Come to think of it, most of us older native Americans are a little rusty. So it is a useful tradition, as the Fourth of July comes around each year, to reflect again—and again—on the American political principles famously proclaimed on the original Independence Day.

Thomas Jefferson said late in life, when explaining the genesis of the Declaration of Independence, that the ideas expressed in it were “the common sense of the subject” in Revolutionary America. In drafting the Declaration, he had not meant to proclaim any “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but merely to express “the American mind.” The Declaration contains a famous summation of the principles of free government; but it was only because the American people had already learned to understand and to embrace these principles that it was possible to establish an American republic. The American Mind made the American Revolution, not the other way around.

As the Declaration proclaims, the just powers of government are derived from “the consent of the governed.” Only a people prepared to consent to a republic is capable of establishing one—or capable of keeping it, as Benjamin Franklin later reminded his fellow citizens. Are we still such a people? No one else can answer this question for us. It is up to this generation, as it has been up to each generation that preceded us and will be up to each generation that succeeds us, to demonstrate our capacity for self-government.

The best way to do this is to make sure we understand and live up to the meaning and political implications of the most famous and most important American words, taken from the Declaration, explaining to the world what American Revolutionaries regarded as the principled foundations and purposes of their political independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Happy Fourth.


Christopher Flannery is a Professor of Politics in the History and Political Science Department and Director of the Humanities Program at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. He is also the visiting Louaine S. Taylor Professor of American History & Government at Ashland University.